Banking On an Escape Artist

James Banks came to Tennessee with the reputation of being an extraordinary escape artist. His exploits at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis were legendary; he once chased down a high snap while in punt formation (yes, he was the Giants' punter) and returned it for an 89-yard touchdown in a playoff game. It seemed like his biggest gains came on broken plays as his ability to turn potential disaster into game-winning efforts was unparalleled.

Banks showed some of that same ability at Tennessee as a true freshman when he led Georgia Bulldog defenders on many merry chases in his first start as a college quarterback, and almost led the Vols to an upset at Athens. As a sophomore, he moved to wide receiver and the big plays continued. His reception of a deflected pass in the end zone on the last play of the first half against Florida offered further evidence of his uncanny instincts on the gridiron.

However, Banks made the most improbable escape of his fabled football career on Tuesday when he avoided expulsion from Tennessee's team. Still on probation for two prior suspensions, Banks appeared to be on his way out after an episode with Knoxville police last week in which he was cited for public disturbance and failure to obey the lawful command of an officer of the law, who ordered him to turn down the blaring music on his car stereo. Banks had been drinking and had an open container of beer in the vehicle, but he was charged with underage drinking as opposed to the more serious DUI offense.

Most sources in the know figured Banks was a goner, as he had completed the tragic transition from Golden Boy to Troubled Child, but instead of three strikes and you're out it was three ball games and you're in. That was the penalty handed down by Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, provided Banks meets the other requirements of his probation which include community service, alcohol counseling and continued academic progress toward graduation.

Naturally, UT's head coach opens himself up for criticism and second guessing after handing down the seemingly light sentence. The easiest decision would have been to set an example by simply throwing Banks off the team. Yet being a successful head coach means making the tough decisions and that's what Fulmer did in this case. And you have to believe he made it with Banks' best interest in mind since the junior isn't critical to the Vols' plans this fall, despite his status as the team's leading receiver last year. Tennessee is deeper at wideout with the return of redshirt freshman Robert Meachem and the development of several young receivers. Plus, Banks has been projected as a probable defensive back this fall.

Yes, there's a risk to team chemistry and unity from giving a player too many chances. It also sets a serious precedent since other players on the team may figure they're entitled to the same number of transgressions.

It's tempting to take the arbitrary approach which suggests that you must treat every player on a team the same. In truth, treating every player the same, while attractive in theory, is impractical in reality because you're dealing with individuals with different backgrounds who respond to a wide variety of stimuli. Part of what makes a head coach successful is understanding the nuances of 85 personalities and learning which buttons to push to get each individual's best performance.

That's what makes it so difficult to walk away from a talent like Banks who was raised by a loving and supportive family that demands his best.(On a personal note: the Banks family is one of the nicest I've ever met in 20 years of covering sports.) With that type of background, Banks is a good risk albeit a calculated one.

In many respects, James Banks may be a victim of his enormous athletic gifts. Things have always come easy to him. He won the starting job at QB by his sophomore season at Ben Davis and led the Giants to three straight state titles. He was a two-time all-state basketball player in the Hoosier State and he was an Indiana sprint champion. Baseball may be his best sport, but he never seriously pursued it because he it didn't excite him. He has excelled at any position he's played on the gridiron including return specialist, wide receiver, defensive back, punter and quarterback where he earned Parade All-American honors.

Over the years, he's been able to extricate himself from so many seemingly impossible situations. Now he faces his greatest challenge with his career hanging in the balance.


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